Dear Virginia Bottomley

Library users want more books and longer opening hours. What they get are cuts in book funds and staffing. And a secretary of state who won't say where she stands
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
I'll be just down the road from you in Westminster this morning, at an important debate and rally about the future of public libraries. I would have liked to put questions to you in person, but you turned down your invitation to attend.

Your predecessor at the Department of National Heritage, Stephen Dorrell, did the same when invited to the launch of Library Power, a series of events aimed at children, in May this year, following a fine Conservative tradition started by Tim Renton in February 1992. That was on the first Save Our Libraries Day, in the House of Commons, when a panel of speakers included Mark Fisher for Labour and Robert Maclennan for the Lib Dems. And today, surprise, surprise, there will be a panel featuring Chris Smith (Labour) and Robert Maclennan again. The turnover in Shadows is not quite as dizzying as it is in the Cabinet - you are the fifth secretary of state with responsibility for libraries in three and a half years.

It is not an enviable portfolio, particularly if you thought it was going to be an easy ride after Health, but we library supporters are all anxious to know where you stand. Apparently, you have already made statements about the future of sports, broadcasting and the arts. It is only libraries that are left in limbo.

Rumour has it that you don't want to answer any questions until you have made a public statement on the huge Public Library Review, published in May. This was one of four major reports commissioned by your predecessors which have been published this year. Among its many recommendations is one that public libraries should all be wired up to the Internet.

We know where Labour stands on this; Tony Blair has already stolen your thunder with BT. But the Library Association has been working on this idea for ages. It has had to put in a bid for millennium project funds to ensure that members of the public can benefit from the information superhighway. New technologies breed new inequalities and it is becoming a cliche that the gap between the "information rich" and the "information poor" is widening. Wouldn't it be better for the Department of National Heritage to take advantage of librarians' expertise and fund the initiative itself?

Other reports this year have recommended an integrated strategy for children's library services and said that no commercial provider would step in where school library services close. They concluded that there were no benefits in contracting out. But there is no point in commissioning reports which seem to suggest there is nothing wrong with the public library system that a bit of investment couldn't put right, if you are going to let them moulder on the shelf.

Sixty per cent of the population use libraries. What we want is more books and longer opening hours. What we get are cuts in book funds and staffing. We need to know where you see libraries going in the 21st century. As Secretary of State, you are not only the one who should have the vision to offer us; you are also the one with the power to implement it. As I put my questions to your Shadows yet again, I shall be thinking: "Wish you were here."

Comments